Forgiveness in the Bible
Hebrews 10:4 declares: “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” But how come, in Leviticus 4 and 5, for example, there is abundant mention of sin and trespass offering of bulls and goats, and through them the sins of the people of Israel were forgiven (Leviticus 4:19, 26, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18).
How do we reconcile this seeming discrepancy?
Because of seeming inconsistencies in the Bible, some people have soured on the Book and therefore believe in some other deity, some other “holy” writ — or none at all. But Jesus assures: “…the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) by any supposed inconsistency or discrepancy. With the help of God’s Spirit which, Jesus promised, will guide His disciples “into all truth” (John 16:13), an honest and sincere student of the Bible will be able to reconcile such seeming discrepancies and harmonize God’s Word on various subjects, such as sin and forgiveness.
Two kinds of sin in the Bible
The apostle John, who was given some intimate insights into Christ’s mind, was inspired to write: “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16-17).
How does this square with the apostle Paul’s well-known statement in Romans 6:23, “For the wages [consequence] of sin is death…?” There are two ways to understand this rather enigmatic passage from John’s letter.
One way is to view it from the perspective of God’s judgment, as we find it in the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus 21-22. Here we find listed various laws of God and the prescribed penalty or remedy (judgments) for transgressions of these laws. As can be seen from a cursory look at these chapters, there are certain violations of God’s laws that require mere restitution or compensation for damage done (see, for example, Exodus 21:18-20; 22:1-7). These are sins which we may consider as “not leading to death.” After the restitution or compensation is made, the sins may be considered as “forgiven.”
There are also sins that “lead to death” — capital punishment (see Exodus 21:12, 14-17, 28-29; 22:18-20). Under the Old Testament law, such capital offenders were mostly stoned to death without mercy. That is why the ministry under Moses was called “the ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7). [See: Of Dungeons and Prisons.]
The other way to view the passage from John’s letter is from the perspective of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry: the new covenant “ministry of the Spirit,” and “the ministry of righteousness” (Verses 6, 8-9). In contrast to Moses’ ministry of death, Christ’s ministry — through the Holy Spirit that it makes available to true believers in Jesus — ministers life (Verse 5).
How does Christ’s ministry minister life? Through God’s gift or grace of His Son Jesus, who offered His body as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of all mankind, those who truly believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life (Romans 6:23; John 3:16; 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; Hebrews 2:17; 9:14-15, 26-28; 10:10, 12-14). [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant, Moses and Jesus -- Are They Contraries? The Ransomed of the LORD and Fake News.]
Thus Paul also called the ministry which Christ committed to him, the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). That ministry was about God the Father, in Christ, “reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them…For He made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (Verses 19, 21). [See: Two Goats Together, especially #8 under the section titled "Another angle."] Instead of death which sin earns for all sinners (Romans 6:23), a true believer in Jesus has his sins washed clean through Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus cleansed, that sinner receives God’s Spirit, which is Christ’s life and righteousness imputed to him.
Through repentance and receiving of God’s gift of forgiveness (which is what God’s grace is about), the sin that a Christian believer may have committed in the past will no longer lead to his well-deserved death. In this sense, that sin (because repented of and forgiven) is one “not leading to death.” [See: Freed From Bondage.]
The sin that leads to death is sin that is not repented of, or sin that one cannot repent of, because it is willful and “unpardonable” (cannot and will not be forgiven). Paul warns: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26). “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted the good word of God and the power of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6). [See: Why Is the "Unpardonable Sin" Unpardonable?]
Sin and forgiveness in the Old Testament
As cited earlier, Leviticus 4 and 5 detail certain sins which were “forgiven” after a sin offering of a young bull or a kid of the goats or a lamb is made for the sinner. As can be noticed, these chapters are talking about unintentional sins (Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:14, 17) — or sins done out of ignorance. Leviticus 5:17 clarifies this: “If a person sins, and commits any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD, though he does not know it, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity.” As the common saying goes, “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.”
However, in God’s view a person who knows God’s will and does not do it will be punished more severely than one who ignorantly disobeys God’s will and law (Luke 12:47-48).
Nevertheless, a person who accidentally kills another (without a history of holding hatred or malice toward the latter) is considered by God as guiltless (“innocent”), though a death (in legal parlance, “homicide”) has resulted. Deuteronomy 19:1-10 describes such a case: “…as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies…”
For such a person who has committed the homicide, God has provided a way of escape from relatives of the dead person who might seek vengeance for the death. God mercifully provided “cities of refuge” (like asylums) to keep such a guiltless or innocent person safe from harm. Numbers 35:9-34 gives further details of God’s law on this. It differentiates premeditated murder from accidental and unintentional killing (homicide). (See also Deuteronomy 19:11-13.)
This shows that God is more concerned about the motives and intents of our hearts than over our mere actions. This is not to say that one’s actions don’t matter. They do!
Israel’s King David committed the twin sins of adultery and murder when he had sex with the wife of his solder Uriah and, after she became pregnant, he plotted Uriah’s death by sending him to the war front undefended (2 Samuel 11:1-17). But God knew David’s heart. In fact, David is famously called by God as “a man after My own heart” (1 Samuel 16:11, 13; Acts 13:22). Dastardly and wicked though the acts of David were, God saw his genuine and heart-felt repentance. God quickly forgave his sins (Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:9-13). David, however, suffered the “side-effect” of his sins: the death of his “love child” (Verse 14). [See: The Children of Abraham, especially the box titled "The kind of people God calls."]
How could David and the other men and women of faith in the Old Testament (as listed in Hebrews 11) have received forgiveness for their sins when Jesus (as the Lamb of God) had not yet been born and sacrificed?
Revelation 13:8 says that “the Lamb” (Jesus) was, as it were, “slain from the foundation of the world” — when human society began at the Garden of Eden. Paul wrote that God “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17). Thus we could say that God “advanced” to David and the other Old Testament people of God forgiveness for their sins.
To summarize: in the Old Testament forgiveness was granted to the people of God who sinned ignorantly after they had offered the prescribed animal sacrifices. Otherwise, those who transgressed God’s law requiring compensation for loss or damage to property or “limb” were, as it were, let go or “forgiven.” Those who committed capital sins were not forgiven and were meted the prescribed capital punishment (death). The exceptions were people in the Old Testament (mainly God’s prophets) to whom God had given His Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21; Psalm 51:11). [See: Predestination, This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation, and God's Feasts and the Jews -- Part 2, particularly the section on "The Feast of Weeks/ Day of Pentecost and the Jews."]
Sin and forgiveness in the New Testament
Many of those who proclaim the “good news” of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of the sin of the world (1 John 1:29) through the sacrifice of Himself (John 1:29), teach that God has already forgiven everyone. That through Christ God’s mercy has now been extended to all men . Nice-sounding though this might be, this is not what the New Testament teaches! [See: Fake News.]
Paul explains that it is the call of God as to whom He will show mercy to at the time He chooses: some people now, and most people later. Citing Exodus 33:19, Paul declares of God: “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Romans 9:14-18).
Paul understood that only a few people have received God’s mercy in this age. He wrote about Christians in “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4): “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This is as Jesus had taught about our present age: “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life [everlasting], and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14). Paul thus called the few Christians called under his ministry as “we…who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23). He called the people who comprise the Church of God in this present age as “the church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:13). [See: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews? What Happens to Man After Death? The Book of Life and The Value of the "Firstborn."]
Most human beings will have their opportunity to be forgiven of their sins, through Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice. These are: 1) surviving mortals after Christ returns to earth and establishes His initial 1,000-year reign here with His glorified saints [the "firstborn"] (Acts 17:13; Isaiah 6::11-13; 2:1, 4; Jeremiah 31:34); and 2) all other human beings who had never had their chance to really know God, to be resurrected for judgment or teaching after that 1,000-year period (Revelation 20:5, 11-12).
As always our unchanging and changeless God forgives sinners when they truly repent — turn away from sin, which is disobedience to God’s law — now and in the ages to come. Otherwise, Jesus tells us twice: “…unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). And God forgives only when we also forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15; James 2:13). [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant, What Does God Mean -- "I Do Not Change?" and Why Is the "Unpardonable Sin" Unpardonable?]
Key to everlasting life
During this time of year much of the world celebrates the forgiveness of sin that mankind is able to receive through the passion and death — and the resurrection — of Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God.” What people need to know and understand is the true meaning of sin and repentance.
People and churches have their own ideas of what sin really is. Often their standards or definitions of “sin” are “cafeteria-style” — according to their own understanding and liking, not considering The Whole Counsel of God about what sin really is, in God’s sight.
For example, many people and churches believe and teach that it is a sin to steal, murder, or commit adultery but some believe and teach that it is OK not to keep the seventh-day Sabbath anymore, to have carved images or pictures of “God” or to not observe the other commandments and statutes of God. But, James 2:10 tells us: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”
Sin is, simply, disobedience to the word of God — whether it is His law, commandments, statutes, judgments or plain doctrine or teaching (1 John 3:4). Adam (with his wife Eve urging him) “sinned” by eating the fruit of the tree God forbade them to (Genesis 3). Adam thus pioneered the way of sin and death for all of his descendants — including you and me (Romans 5:12). [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!" Law Added to Law Transgressed, The Law of Christ, Moses and Jesus -- Are They Contraries? No Walls, No Ceiling? and The Great Wall.]
Unless people understand what sin truly is and genuinely repent of it, they will not escape the consequence of sin: death (Romans 6:23); Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Luke 13:3, 5). That repentance is “granted” by God (Acts 11:18). How?
Paul says that “the goodness of God leads…to repentance” (Romans 2:4). People can understand the “deep things of God” — which includes true knowledge of His goodness — when God gives His Spirit to open the otherwise blinded eyes of men (1 Corinthians 2:9-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
When one comes to true repentance, one needs to be “baptized for the remission [forgiveness] of sins” and then receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) — the Spirit that begets one as a child of God. [See: Are We All God's Children?]
That Spirit is the “earnest” or “down payment” as a “guarantee” of God’s promised inheritance of everlasting life to all of God’s children, beginning with God’s “firstfruits” at Jesus’ return (Ephesians 1:14).
It is that Spirit which enables and empowers a true Christian to obey God’s commandments — something impossible for human beings in their natural state (Romans 8:7). In the final analysis, only those who keep the commandments of God will have the right to partake of the “tree of life” — to receive everlasting life (Revelation 22:14; Genesis 3:22). [See: God's Spirit and Obedience, The Higher Law of the Spirit, and Breaking Down our "Walls of Jericho."]
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.