Why is Forgiveness Even Possible?
Mark 2:4-11 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”
In my ongoing discussion of forgiveness, I am challenging much of the contemporary thinking among Christians regarding this important subject. I trust that all of you realize (and I think that you do) that when I maintain that because God does not forgive His enemies (they must bow and humbly repent of sin and confess Christ as Lord and Savior, thus laying down arms against God), I do not mean that we are to remain hateful and vengeful toward those who sin against us and who, in fact, are our enemies. No. We are to reflect God’s own character in dealing with them. He does good to them, and so must we. He tells us to pray for them. We are not to seek personal vengeance, but to leave that to God. But what I mean is that in all of this, we do not declare that they are no longer our enemy, when in fact, they are. They continue the warfare. And I address this because so many victims of abuse are being told that forgiveness means that they must no longer regard their abuser as their enemy, which is simply a denial of reality.
Alright then, what of the Scripture quoted above? Notice that Jesus did not admonish the scribes or correct them when they said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In fact, the entire premise of this account of the healing of the lame man rests upon that statement. Jesus is demonstrating here for all to see that he is God! Because He can speak and this man can walk, therefore He demonstrates that He is God and therefore possesses authority to declare sins forgiven.
Now, think about this. Do YOU have authority to forgive sin? I mean, do you possess that authority and ability within your own self, simply because you are you? No. Any authority given to any human being to forgive sin is really authority that resides in Christ alone. When we pronounce a person’s sins forgiven, it is only because we do so by the authority of the Word of God. The sinner is not forgiven because of my words, but because of Christ. This is why there is forgiveness only in Christ and nowhere else. Ultimately, if a person will not have Christ, then their sins remain unforgiven. Only Christ can forgive sin, and He can do so only because of His work of redemption for us.
This is why, therefore, there was/is no forgiveness of sin under the Old Testament Law in and of itself. By “in and of itself” I mean, without Christ. Any forgiveness granted in the Old era was, even then, based upon a looking forward to Christ, to whom the OT pointed. Consider this passage —
Galatians 3:10-14 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Only God can forgive sin. And that is only because of Christ. The Law, in and of itself, can only bring condemnation. It is a grinding, unrelenting, yes — unmerciful — outworking of the holiness and righteousness of God Himself who cannot bear to look upon sin. The Law only brings about the curse. Not because the Law is somehow evil (it is holy and righteous and good, as Paul says). But it is because of me, because of my sin, that the Law will always and only condemn me.
Where there is no repentance, where there is no bowing of the knee to Christ, the Law stands against that rebel and condemns him. There is no forgiveness for such a person while he remains the enemy of God. Only God can forgive sin, and that only because of Christ. No matter how many human beings say to such a rebel “I forgive you,” that rebel remains unforgiven. His crimes still stand against him. So, while we might do such an enemy good, and while we do not seek personal vengeance against him, nevertheless heaven’s indictment still pronounces him cursed, and none of us can change that fact. Only God can forgive him, and that forgiveness is only because of and in Christ.
Therefore, as we deal with our enemies, we must be consistent with God’s way of dealing with His enemies (hopefully our enemies are God’s enemies and not because WE have done them injustice!). We must not, and indeed we cannot, pronounce the debt of their unrepented sin forgiven. We cannot even, in this sense, forgive someone when they do repent! We only acknowledge that God forgives humbled, repentant, believing people. We do no good to a rebel to pronounce him a non-enemy when in fact he is still an enemy among us wearing a suicide vest of explosives to kill us. The elephant of his sin is still in the room and no amount of pretending otherwise can change that fact. What I fear is happening so often in the church today is that with all of our talk of love and mercy and forgiveness, we are doing nothing more than choosing to ignore the elephant. That pachyderm is going to stay right there unless and until the enemy of God lays down his arms, bows his knee to Christ, and repents.