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
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
~ Psalm 130:4
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me. And it shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and an honour before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear all the good that I do unto them: and they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity that I procure unto it.
~ Jeremiah 31:34, Jeremiah 33:8-9
For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great. For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; 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. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him; Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.
~ Psalm 25:11, Psalm 86:5, Psalm 103:2-3, Isaiah 1:18, Isaiah 55:7, Daniel 9:9, Micah 7:18-20
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. 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. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.
~ Hosea 3:5, Psalm 2:11-12, Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22, Hebrews 12:24, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 2 Timothy 2:19
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
The Forgiveness of Sin, A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130, by John Owen. The following is an excerpt from the text.
Search the Scriptures.
~ John 5:39
Greatness and rareness of the discovery of forgiveness in God—Reasons of it—Testimonies of conscience and law against it, etc.
Secondly. This discovery of forgiveness in God is great, holy, and mysterious, and which very few on gospel grounds do attain unto.
All men, indeed, say there is; most men are persuaded that they think so. Only men in great and desperate extremities, like Cain or Spira, seem to call it into question. But their thoughts are empty, groundless, yea, for the most part wicked and atheistical. Elihu tells us, that to declare this aright to a sinful soul, it is the work of “a messenger, an interpreter, one among a thousand,” Job 33:23; that is, indeed, of Christ himself. The common thoughts of men about this thing are slight and foolish, and may be resolved into those mentioned by the psalmist, Ps. 50:21. They think that “God is altogether such an one as themselves;” that, indeed, he takes little or no care about these things, but passeth them over as slightly as they do themselves. That, notwithstanding all their pretences, the most of men never had indeed any real discovery of forgiveness, shall be afterward undeniably evinced; and I shall speedily show the Difference that is between their vain credulity and a gracious gospel discovery of forgiveness in God. For it must be observed, that by this discovery I intend both the revelation of it made by God and our understanding and reception of that revelation to our own advantage; as shall be showed immediately.
Now, the grounds of the difficulty intimated consist partly in the hinderances that lie in the way of this discovery, and partly in the nature of the thing itself that is discovered; of both which I shall briefly treat.
But here, before I proceed, somewhat must be premised to show what it is that I particularly intend by a discovery of forgiveness. It may, then, be considered two ways:—1. For a doctrinal, objective discovery of it in its truth. 2. An experimental, subjective discovery of it in its power. In the first sense, forgiveness in God hath been discovered ever since the giving out of the first promise: God revealed it in a word of promise, or it could never have been known; as shall be afterward declared. In this sense, after many lesser degrees and advancements of the light of it, it was fully and gloriously brought forth by the Lord Jesus Christ in his own person, and is now revealed and preached in the gospel, and by them to whom the word of reconciliation is committed; and to declare this is the principal work of the ministers of the gospel. Herein lie those unsearchable treasures and riches of Christ, which the apostle esteemed as his chiefest honour and privilege that he was entrusted with the declaration and dispensation of, Eph. 3:8, 9. I know by many it is despised, by many traduced, whose ignorance and blindness is to be lamented; but the day is coming which will manifest every man’s work of what sort it is. In the latter sense, how it is made by faith in the soul, shall in its proper place be farther opened and made known. Here many men mistake and deceive themselves. Because it is so in the book, they think it is so in them also. Because they have been taught it, they think they believe it. But it is not so; they have not heard this voice of God at any time, nor seen his shape. It hath not been revealed unto them in its power.
To have this done is a great work; for,—
First, The constant voice of conscience lies against it. Conscience, if not seared, inexorably condemneth and pronounceth wrath and anger upon the soul that hath the least guilt cleaving to it. Now, it hath this advantage, it lieth close to the soul, and by importunity and loud speaking it will be heard in what it hath to say; it will make the whole soul attend, or it will speak like thunder. And its constant voice is, that where there is guilt there must be judgment, Rom. 2:14, 15. Conscience naturally knows nothing of forgiveness; yea, it is against its very trust, work, and office to hear any thing of it. If a man of courage and honesty be intrusted to keep a garrison against an enemy, let one come and tell him that there is peace made between those whom he serves and their enemies, so that he may leave his guard, and set open the gates, and cease his watchfulness; how wary will he be, lest under this pretence he be betrayed! “No,” saith he; “I will keep my hold until I have express order from my superiors.” Conscience is intrusted with the power of God in the soul of a sinner, with command to keep all in subjection with reference unto the judgment to come. It will not betray its trust in believing every report of peace. No; but this it says, and it speaks in the name of God, “Guilt and punishment are inseparable twins; if the soul sin, God will judge. What tell you me of forgiveness? I know what my commission is, and that I will abide by. You shall not bring in a superior commander, a cross principle, into my trust; for if this be so, it seems I must let go my throne,— another lord must come in;” not knowing, as yet, how this whole business is compounded in the blood of Christ. Now, whom should a man believe if not his own conscience, which, as it will not flatter him, so it intends not to affright him, but to speak the truth as the matter requireth? Conscience hath two works in reference unto sin,—one to condemn the acts of sin, another to judge the person of the sinner; both with reference to the judgment of God. When forgiveness comes, it would sever and part these employments, and take one of them out of the hand of conscience; it would divide the spoil with this strong one. It shall condemn the fact, or every sin: but it shall no more condemn the sinner, the person of the sinner; that shall be freed from its sentence. Here conscience labours with all its might to keep its whole dominion, and to keep out the power of forgiveness from being enthroned in the soul. It will allow men to talk of forgiveness, to hear it preached, though they abuse it every day; but to receive it in its power, that stands up in direct opposition to its dominion. “In the kingdom,” saith conscience, “I will be greater than thou;” and in many, in the most, it keeps its possession, and will not be deposed.
Nor, indeed, is it an easy work so to deal with it. The apostle tells us that all the sacrifices of the law could not do it, Heb. 10:2: they could not bring a man into that estate wherein he “should have no more conscience of sin;”—that is, conscience condemning the person; for conscience in a sense of sin, and condemnation of it, is never to be taken away. And this can be no otherwise done but by the blood of Christ, as the apostle at large there declares.
It is, then, no easy thing to make a discovery of forgiveness unto a soul, when the work and employment which conscience, upon unquestionable grounds, challengeth unto itself lies in opposition unto it. Hence is the soul’s great desire to establish its own righteousness, whereby its natural principles may be preserved in their power. Let self-righteousness be enthroned, and natural conscience desires no more; it is satisfied and pacified. The law it knows, and righteousness it knows; but as for forgiveness, it says, “Whence is it?” Unto the utmost, until Christ perfects his conquest, there are on this account secret stragglings in the heart against free pardon in the gospel, and fluctuations of mind and spirit about it. Yea, hence are the doubts and fears of believers themselves. They are nothing but the strivings of conscience to keep its whole dominion, to condemn the sinner as well as the sin. More or less it keeps up its pretensions against the gospel whilst we live in this world. It is a great work that the blood of Christ hath to do upon the conscience of a sinner; for whereas, as it hath been declared, it hath a power, and claims a right to condemn both sin and sinner, the one part of this its power is to be cleared, strengthened, made more active, vigorous, and watchful, the other to be taken quite away. It shall now see more sins than formerly, more of the vileness of all sins than formerly, and condemn them with more abhorrency than ever, upon more and more glorious accounts than formerly; but it is also made to see an interposition between these sins and the person of the sinner who hath committed them, which is no small or ordinary work.
Secondly, The law lies against this discovery. The law is a beam of the holiness of God himself. What it speaks unto us, it speaks in the name and authority of God; and I shall briefly show concerning it these two things:—1. That this is the voice of the law,—namely, that there is no forgiveness for a sinner. 2. That a sinner hath great reason to give credit to the law in that assertion.
1. It is certain that the law knows neither mercy nor forgiveness. The very sanction of it lies wholly against them: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die;” “Cursed is he that continueth not in all things in the book of the law to do them,” Deut. 27:26; [Gal. 3:10.] Hence the apostle pronounceth universally, without exception, that they who “are under the law are under the curse,” Gal. 3:10; and saith he, verse 12, “The law is not of faith.” There is an inconsistency between the law and believing; they cannot have their abode in power together. ” ‘Do this and live;’ fail and die,” is the constant, immutable voice of the law. This it speaks in general to all, and this in particular to every one.
2. The sinner seems to have manifold and weighty reasons to attend to the voice of this law, and to acquiesce in its sentence; for,—
(1.) The law is connatural to him; his domestic, his old acquaintance. It came into the world with him, and hath grown up with him from his infancy. It was implanted in his heart by nature,—is his own reason; he can never shake it off or part with it. It is his familiar, his friend, that cleaves to him as the flesh to the bone; so that they who have not the law written cannot but show forth the work of the law, Rom. 2:14, 15, and that because the law itself is inbred to them. And all the faculties of the soul are at peace with it, in subjection to it. It is the bond and ligament of their union, harmony, and correspondency among themselves, in all their moral actings. It gives life, order, motion to them all. Now, the gospel, that comes to control this sentence of the law, and to relieve the sinner from it, is foreign to his nature, a strange thing to him, a thing he hath no acquaintance or familiarity with; it hath not been bred up with him; nor is there any thing in him to side with it, to make a party for it, or to plead in its behalf. Now, shall not a man rather believe a domestic, a friend, indeed himself, than a foreigner, a stranger, that comes with uncouth principles, and such as suit not its reason at all? 1 Cor. 1:18.
(2.) The law speaks nothing to a sinner but what his conscience assures him to be true. There is a constant concurrence in the testimony of the law and conscience. When the law says, “This or that is a sin worthy of death,” conscience says, “It is even so,” Rom. 1:32. And where the law of itself, as being a general rule, rests, conscience helps it on, and says, “This and that sin, so worthy of death, is the soul guilty of.” “Then die,” saith the law, “as thou hast deserved.” Now, this must needs have a mighty efficacy to prevail with the soul to give credit to the report and testimony of the law; it speaks not one word but what he hath a witness within himself to the truth of it. These witnesses always agree; and so it seems to be established for a truth that there is no forgiveness.
(3.) The law, though it speak against the soul’s interest, yet it speaks nothing but what is so just, righteous, and equal, that it even forceth the soul’s consent. So Paul tells us, that men know this voice of the law to be the “judgment of God,” Rom. 1:32. They know it, and cannot but consent unto it, that it is the judgment of God,—that is, good, righteous, equal, not to be controlled. And, indeed, what can be more righteous than its sentence? It commands obedience to the God of life and death; promiseth a reward, and declares that for non-performance of duty, death will be inflicted. On these terms the sinner cometh into the world. They are good, righteous, holy; the soul accepts of them, and knows not what it can desire better or more equal. This the apostle insists upon, chap. 7:12, 13, “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which was good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” Wherever the blame falls, the soul cannot but acquit the law, and confess that what it says is righteous and uncontrollably equal. And it is meet things should be so. Now, though the authority and credit of a witness may go very far in a doubtful matter, when there is a concurrence of more witnesses it strengthens the testimony; but nothing is so prevalent to beget belief as when the things themselves that are spoken are just and good, not liable to any reasonable exception. And so is it in this case: unto the authority of the law and concurrence of conscience, this also is added, the reasonableness and equity of the thing itself proposed, even in the judgment of the sinner,—namely, that every sin shall be punished, and every transgression receive a meet recompense of reward.
(4.) But yet farther. What the law says, it speaks in the name and authority of God. What it says, then, must be believed, or we make God a liar. It comes not in its own name, but in the name of him who appointed it. You will say, then, “Is it so indeed? Is there no forgiveness with God? For this is the constant voice of the law, which you say speaks in the name and authority of God, and is therefore to be believed.” I answer briefly with the apostle, “What the law speaks, it speaks to them that are under the law.” It doth not speak to them that are “in Christ,” whom the “law of the Spirit of life hath set free from the law of sin and death;” but to them that are “under the law” it speaks; and it speaks the very truth, and it speaks in the name of God, and its testimony is to be received. It says there is no forgiveness in God, namely, to them that are under the law; and they that shall flatter themselves with a contrary persuasion will find themselves woefully mistaken at the great day.
On these and the like considerations, I say, there seems to be a great deal of reason why a soul should conclude that it will be according to the testimony of the law, and that he shall not find forgiveness. Law and conscience close together, and insinuate themselves into the thoughts, mind, and judgment of a sinner. They strengthen the testimony of one another, and greatly prevail. If any are otherwise minded, I leave them to the trial. If ever God awaken their consciences to a thorough performance of their duty,—if ever he open their souls, and let in the light and power of the law upon them,—they will find it no small work to grapple with them. I am sure that eventually they prevail so far, that in the preaching of the gospel we have great cause to say, “Lord, who hath believed our report?” We come with our report of forgiveness, but who believes it? by whom is it received? Neither doth the light, nor conscience, nor conversation of the most, allow us to suppose it is embraced.
Thirdly, The ingrafted notions that are in the minds of men concerning the nature and justice of God lie against this discovery also. There are in all men by nature indelible characters of the holiness and purity of God, of his justice and hatred of sin, of his invariable righteousness in the government of the world, that they can neither depose nor lay aside; for notions of God, whatever they are, will bear sway and rule in the heart, when things are put to the trial. They were in the heathens of old; they abode with them in all their darkness; as might be manifested by innumerable instances. But so it is in all men by nature. Their inward thought is, that God is an avenger of sin; that it belongs to his rule and government of the world, his holiness and righteousness, to take care that every sin be punished; this is his judgment, which all men know, as was observed before, Rom. 1:32. They know that it is a righteous thing with God to render tribulation unto sinners. From thence is that dread and fear which surpriseth men at an apprehension of the presence of God, or of any thing under him, above them, that may seem to come on his errand. This notion of God’s avenging all sin exerts itself secretly but effectually. So Adam trembled, and hid himself. And it was the saying of old, “I have seen God, and shall die.” When men are under any dreadful providence,—thunderings, lightnings, tempests, in darkness,—they tremble; not so much at what they see, or hear, or feel, as from their secret thoughts that God is nigh, and that he is a consuming fire.
Now, these inbred notions lie universally against all apprehensions of forgiveness, which must be brought into the soul from without doors, having no principle of nature to promote them.
It is true, men by nature have presumptions and common ingrafted notions of other properties of God besides his holiness and justice,—as of his goodness, benignity, love of his creatures, and the like; but all these have this supposition inlaid with them in the souls of men, namely, that all things stand between God and his creatures as they did at their first creation. And as they have no natural notion of forgiveness, so the interposition of sin weakens, disturbs, darkens them, as to any improvement of those apprehensions of goodness and benignity which they have. If they have any notion of forgiveness, it is from some corrupt tradition, and not at all from any universal principle that is inbred in nature, such as are those which they have of God’s holiness and vindictive justice.
And this is the first ground; from whence it appears that a real, solid discovery of forgiveness is indeed a great work; many difficulties and hinderances lie in the way of its accomplishment.
False presumptions of forgiveness discovered—Differences between them and faith evangelical.
Before I proceed to produce and manage the remaining evidences of this truth, because what hath been spoken lies obnoxious and open to an objection, which must needs rise in the minds of many, that it may not thereby be rendered useless unto them, I shall remove it out of the way, that we may pass on to what remains.
It will, then, be said, “Doth not all this lie directly contrary to our daily experience? Do ye not find all men full enough, most too full, of apprehensions of forgiveness with God? What so common as ‘God is merciful?’ Are not the consciences and convictions of the most stifled by this apprehension? Can you find a man that is otherwise minded? Is it not a common complaint, that men presume on it unto their eternal ruin? Certainly, then, that which all men do, which every man can so easily do, and which you cannot keep men off from doing, though it be to their hurt, hath no such difficulty in it as is pretended.” And on this very account hath this weak endeavour to demonstrate this truth been by some laughed to scorn; men who have taken upon them the teaching of others, but, as it seems, had need be taught themselves the very “first principles of the oracles of God.”
Ans. All this, then, I say, is so, and much more to this purpose may be spoken. The folly and presumption of poor souls herein can never be enough lamented. But it is one thing to embrace a cloud, a shadow, another to have the truth in reality. I shall hereafter show the true nature of forgiveness and wherein it doth consist, whereby the vanity of this self-deceiving will be discovered and laid open. It will appear in the issue, that, notwithstanding all their pretensions, the most of men know nothing at all, or not any thing to the purpose, of that which is under consideration. I shall, therefore, for the present, in some few observations, show how far this delusion of many differs from a true gospel discovery of forgiveness, such as that we are inquiring after.
First, The common notion of forgiveness that men have in the world is twofold: —
1. An atheistical presumption on God, that he is not so just and holy, or not just and holy in such a way and manner, as he is by some represented, is the ground of their persuasion of forgiveness. Men think that some declarations of God are fitted only to make them mad; that he takes little notice of these things; and that what he doth, he will easily pass by, as, they suppose, better be comes him. “Come, ‘let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die.’ ” This is their inward thought, “The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil;” which, says the psalmist, is men’s thinking that God is such a one as themselves, Ps. 50:21. They have no deep nor serious thoughts of his greatness, holiness, purity, severity, but think that he is like themselves, so far as not to be much moved with what they do. What thoughts they have of sin, the same they think God hath. If with them a slight ejaculation be enough to expiate sin, that their consciences be no more troubled, they think it is enough with God that it be not punished. The generality of men make light work of sin; and yet in nothing doth it more appear what thoughts they have of God. He that hath slight thoughts of sin had never great thoughts of God. Indeed, men’s undervaluing of sin ariseth merely from their contempt of God. All sin’s concernments flow from its relation unto God; and as men’s apprehensions are of God, so will they be of sin, which is an opposition to him. This is the frame of the most of men,—they know little of God, and are little troubled about any thing that relates unto him. God is not reverenced, sin is but a trifle, forgiveness a matter of nothing; whoso will may have it for asking. But shall this atheistical wickedness of the heart of man be called a discovery of forgiveness? Is not this to make God an idol? He who is not acquainted with God’s holiness and purity, who knows not sin’s desert and sinfulness, knows nothing of forgiveness.
2. From the doctrine of the gospel commonly preached and made known, there is a general notion begotten in the minds of men that God is ready to forgive. Men, I say, from hence have a doctrinal apprehension of this truth, without any real, satisfactory foundation of that apprehension as to themselves. This they have heard, this they have been often told; so they think, and so they resolved to do. A general persuasion hereof spreads itself over all to whom the sound of the gospel doth come. It is not fiducially resolved into the gospel, but is an opinion growing out of the report of it.
Some relief men find by it in the common course of their conversation, in the duties of worship which they do perform, as also in their troubles and distresses, whether internal and of conscience, or external and of providence, so that they resolve to retain it.
And this is that which I shall briefly speak unto, and therein manifest the differences between this common prevailing apprehension of forgiveness, and faith’s discovery of it to the soul in its power.