There are few things more difficult than forgiving when one has been wronged. First, when a wrong has been done, quite apart from its effect for us (and its affect in us), justice itself has been violated. Second, to be wronged is to be hurt in some way or perhaps in multiple ways. Hurt fogs the brain (through anger and depression) so that we cannot see or think clearly.
If it is difficult for us sinners to forgive other sinners who have offended, how much greater must be the difficulty of the Righteous One to forgive the unrighteous? Imagine a legal system in which every transgression is met with immediate and utterly just retribution. Under such a system that rolling stop (which was not actually a stop) you made last week while glancing at your phone would have been met with a ticket. That murderous thought (“I wish he were dead!”) would be met with the just punishment for murder: death. There is a great lot of careless talk about justice but what it typically means is something like, “I want justice when it is in my favor.” Few of us really want true, absolute, relentless, perfect justice. In that system none of us would fare well. Our Lord Jesus said as much he asked the rich young ruler (Luke 18; Mark 10), “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He was saying to the man that, if he intended to relate to God on the basis of strict justice, he was doomed to fail the test. That is why Jesus imposed on him what he knew to be an impossible test: go sell all you have and give it to the poor. He was not establishing a charter for monasteries nor was he explaining how we can be accepted by God through faithfulness (or congruent merit—as I saw this passage explained recently).1 Rather, he was preaching the law, in its first use, to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery.
Given that God is utterly holy (Isa 6:3) and righteous (Ps 7:11) it is not a small thing to confess that Christians believe in the forgiveness of sins. God is not obligated to forgive. He chooses freely to forgive freely and to make it possible to forgive us without compromising his justice. Think about that. Not only does the righteous God, who is, in himself, a consuming fire (Heb 12:29) forgive but, in Christ, he has satisfied his righteousness for us that he might be just and “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
In the Apostles’ Creed we confess “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and under that heading we confess a Holy Catholic (universal) church. It is important to realize that it is under the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) that the creed moves to the forgiveness of sins (remissionem peccatorum).
Though the church has no power or authority to create anything (that is magic or sacerdotalism) it does, however, have authority and a duty to announce the truth and to recognize reality and act accordingly (e.g., in church discipline). The church is a minister, i.e., a servant of the Word. The church, however, is also the place (locus) where that truth is ordinarily (in both senses, i.e., by divine ordination and usually) announced and where the benefits of the gospel are received.
In Heidelberg Catechism 56 we say:
56. What do you believe concerning the “forgiveness of sins”?
That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, nor the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long; but graciously imputes to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may nevermore come into condemnation.
When the Reformed churches say we believe in the forgiveness of sins we begin not with the church but with God. It is he who forgives sins. This is why it was so scandalous for our Lord Jesus to announce “Your sins are forgiven.” This is why he was falsely accused of blasphemy. He demonstrated that he had (and has) the right and authority and power to forgive sins by healing the paralytic. Only God heals paralytics, raises the dead, and forgives sins and those are the things Jesus did because he is God the Son incarnate.
The ground or legal basis for God’s forgiveness of our sins is “Christ’s satisfaction.” This is shorthand for what we have already discussed under Heidelberg Catechism 37, that Jesus actively suffered all his life and that all his active, righteous, suffering is credited to all those who believe.
That phrase, “for Christ’s sake” (propter Christum) is an axis of Reformed theology. Critics of Reformed theology have sometimes accused it of being legalistic because it is concerned to account for God’s law. I suppose the assumption is that God can ignore his own nature (or perhaps that he has no such thing) and act arbitrarily. God is free but we also are obligated to account for the way he has revealed himself. He reveals himself as just and a law-giving and law-keeping God. Christ’s obedience and death were not arbitrary and, in that sense, cruel. Yes, Jesus was treated cruelly and shamefully but subjected himself to that treatment for our sakes that we might be accepted for his sake, by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. His righteousness is the legal basis for the forgiveness of our sins.
It is a good thing that Christ was our righteous substitute and remains our righteous mediator because, even after we are given new life and faith and through it union with Christ, we remain sinners (simul iustus et peccator). Perfectionists and Gnostics cannot account for that reality but one of the most needed and lovely aspects of the catechism is its realism about the Christian life. There is no perfectionism in classic Reformed theology or in the catechism. Though, in his providence, God certainly sees our sins, legally, we must say that he does not. This is why we say that he no more remembers our sins. This is the language of Scripture (e.g., Ps 25:7 among other places). For God to “remember” our sins would be to place us again under condemnation. Yes, he chastises us as earthly fathers discipline their children. That discipline means our father loves us not that he has rejected us (hence the evil of the health and wealth teaching). In Christ, we are not under a covenant of works (do this and live) but under a covenant of grace: Christ has done that you may live. Because we are forgiven, because our account is settled for Christ’s sake.
Christ achieved perfect righteousness for us (pro nobis). That is why he cried, “It is finished.” Believers are redeemed but we are still pilgrims. We still sin and we shall for the rest of our earthly lives. God, however, is gracious. For Christ’s sake, because he has executed his righteous wrath upon Christ, he bears with us and works in us by his Spirit. In Christ he accepts us.
Please notice that there is nothing in Heidelberg 56 (or anywhere else in the catechism) about our doing or our faithfulness for justification. The doctrine of the catechism is that the forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God (justification) is not grounded in, based upon, or through our obedience or our faithfulness or our cooperation with grace or our sanctification. We obey because we have been declared righteous before God for Christ’s sake. Paul says in Romans 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” and in Galatians 2:16:
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
By “works of the law” Paul means more than the Mosaic ceremonies in the 613 commandments. He was referring to our every attempt either by ourselves or with the help of grace to satisfy God’s righteous law for justification.
The Galatian heresy lives. In combatting antinomianism the medieval church fell into the error of justification by sanctification. The Reformation returned us to the biblical gospel but we soon fell again into moralism. Richard Baxter rejected the Protestant gospel for a mess of moralism. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland attacked the gospel as “antinomian” and she attacked the Marrow of Modern Divinity and the “Marrow Men” (e.g., Thomas Boston and the Erskines) who were, in fact, heroes for the gospel of grace and the gospel mystery of sanctification. Today we hear voices subtly suggesting that the Marrow was antinomian. Baxter may be dead but his doctrine lives in Norman Shepherd and in his self-described Federal Vision followers, in those followers who do not wear the label “federal vision,” and in the New Perspective on Paul, which ironically, is not new at all.
Remarkably, wonderfully, mysteriously, there is forgiveness for sinners. Christians who are content to rest in Christ and in his finished work and to seek, by his grace, to put to death the old man and to be made alive by his grace, find the gospel of forgiveness in Christ’s church. Indeed, the “pure preaching of the gospel” (Belgic Confession art. 29) is one of the marks of the true church. We live together in the communion of the saints as forgiven sinners who, for Christ’s sake alone, shall never come into condemnation.
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord! (Ps 146)
1. Congruent merit (meritum de congruo) was a medieval theory that has re-appeared among Federal Visionists and proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, whereby God is said to have promised (covenanted) to grade on a curve, as it were, so that he imputes to perfection to us when we do our best. The Reformation categorically rejected this doctrine in salvation as a complete fiction. The only merit we know about from Scripture is condign (meritum de condigno) whereby God recognizes Christ’s actually perfect righteousness and merit and credits it to believers for their justification.